Located in Neukölln’s Schillerkiez, English Traders is a small boutique specialising in practical & well-designed homeware, such as balcony garden kits, quality pocketknives, enamel plates, shaving brushes, traditional razors, colourful tea-towels, fine wrapping paper and much more. Established by British expat & ex film set-constructor John Masters, the shop is well known in the Schillerkiez , which has seen a lot of development lately. We wanted to get to know more about it all…
You used to work in film. What made you decide to get into retail?
I used to freelance in set construction, which was always a life of interesting and challenging requests like “we want you to build a Mississippi village on a lake in Brandenburg.”
But freelancing and the constant pressure to reduce production costs didn’t give me much in the way of financial certainty. Retail can also be uncertain, but at least I’m in control and not working in the rain.
Retail is also extremely satisfying if you’re selling something you believe in, for a fair price …. to people who are happy with what they’re getting.
How long have you lived in Berlin and what made you decide to live here?
9 years. I first visited Berlin in December 1989 – the wall controls had collapsed 4 weeks earlier – the city was nuts, that’s when I fell for the place.
In 2008 my partner (a Berliner) and I (London based) had to choose between the two cities- Berlin came out on top on lots of factors- but mainly on potential.
We adore the selection you stock in English Traders, as whilst the shop is very small it packs a lot of interesting products in (some of our favourites are your beautiful tea towels, hard to find in Germany). How do you go about sourcing your products and what do you look for?
Design and usefulness are important, and the tea towels are a compact way to stock a large amount of good artwork.
Durability and sustainability are also in the mix.
We like small companies, fair trade and where possible environmentally low- impact production techniques.
Sourcing techniques vary from the obvious (looking on websites), the cunning (I once used street view to contact the neighbour of an unresponsive U.S manufacturer- he walked next door with our shipping request) and the random (Google search: ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’)
What’s your favourite item you currently stock?
We just got a delivery of some beautiful old school letter boards (like they used to have outside cinemas) – for analogue text messages.
How do you feel setting up English Traders would differ in Berlin compared to had you set it up in London?
It’s impossible to imagine setting up in London – English Traders came about because of living in Berlin, and particularly living in Schillerkiez.
Setting up in London would have meant some raising some serious capital, and dealing with the stress that goes with it.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of getting into retail in Berlin?
Assuming you have gone through all the pros (being in control, satisfaction- getting to meet lots of people) and cons (long hours, short holidays) you and your partners should look again at your business plan and think about how long it will take to get established…
Investments, loans, rent and wages all need to factored around the horrifying thought that it might take 18 months to 2 years to even turn a profit.
Until you know it’s going to work try to keep your overheads to a minimum and even if it’s a roaring success then beware the temptation to over- expand and saddle yourself with extra commitment and debt.
It’s also important to check out what the State expect you to do as a retailer. If possible, try to do as much of your bookkeeping as you can in-house- as we all know, accountants are not cheap – so at the very least keep clear and meticulous records. If you do get in difficulties don’t blank it out, the Finanzamt is populated by humans and they are surprisingly helpful if you ask.
Finding a shop to rent in Berlin is no longer easy and the best deals are usually through word of mouth so it pays to go out networking in your preferred location – and location is crucial, even if you’re selling stuff that’s on-trend.
Never sign an agreement without reading the fine print and check out your potential landlord’s reputation. Avoid expensive cashier/till systems, but don’t avoid insurance.
If your shop has an online presence make sure it displays the correct legal notifications.
Know your rights and obligations.
Once you are up and running, and have decided on your opening hours – you should stick to them – nothing will earn bad press quicker than a shop that’s often inexplicably closed.
We feel the Schillerkiez is starting to see more development lately, with quality-driven cafes popping up, like your neighbours No58 Speiserei (who have named a ‘Johnny Trader Breakfast’ after you!). How do you feel the neighbourhood is changing?
At the moment Schillerkiez is in a good place, it’s got a good mix of ages, races and social types, it’s full of interesting people and projects some of which are new and some that have been here for many years. But it’s popularity could kill its character; many people fear that if it is left to be shaped by the economies of property you’ll get the sort of horror that parts of London are currently enduring…
The constant vigilance needed to keep Tempelhof field free from speculators keeps everyone on their toes here, and we have some hard-working pressure groups in the Kiez.
Of course, a middle-class Tsunami would probably be great for business, but the joy of living here is being part of a diverse community.
If you moved back to the UK, what would you miss about Berlin?
Berlin’s spontaneity, the green spaces, the lack of traffic, the BSR and police sirens that go ‘nee naaa’.
With many, not all, of your products imported from the UK, are most of your customers foreigners or are they German?
It’s mainly Germans in the winter, and 50/50 in the summer months when the area gets lots of visitors.
Where do you like to eat & drink in Berlin?
We have some great places nearby, and new ones popping up all the time – checking out these is a full-time job.
Easier on the pocket, but no less appetising are the local Imbisses where you can take your pick from haloumi in peanut sauce, Lebanese falafel and Turkish lentil soup.
If we really want to go crazy we have Industry Standard just down the hill.
Saturdays you will find us at the outdoor market on Herrfurth Platz eating empanadas or potato curry with Mr Singh. In the summer, we’ll top that off with real Italian ice cream, or cake from ErsteSahne
The area is still wild enough to have a few deeply disrespectful drinking dens and some places that only become bars when no one is looking. You can get some seriously professional bar culture at Circus Lemke (Selchower Strasse) and at Keith (Schillerprommenade). Still hanging in there are a variety of classic Berliner Eckkneipen, like Mahlower Klause where, if you mind your manners, you’ll get a warm welcome, a glass of cold beer with a doily and a slice of Berlin that is disappearing fast.
Complete the following sentence “For me, Berlin is..”
English Traders is a truly adorable & tiny space that we personally love not only because it features useful, well-made products you can’t easily spot elsewhere, but because you really sense how much love & thought friendly owner John Masters has put into the selection of what to stock in such a small space. Pop on down next time you’re in the Schillerkiez!